The European Union’s single market is based on four primary freedoms of movement – that of capital, goods, services, and people. Frequently, when someone talks about the freedom of movement of people, their main focus is the borderless nature of the Union whereby its citizens can travel freely from one state to another. Increasingly, however, the EU citizens participate in the labor markets of countries other than their country of origin.
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Thus, even though the EU does not have control over its member states’ labor markets, the phenomenon of cross-cultural labor prompted it to address the working conditions and standards across the member states. One such measure is the Working Time Directive (WTD) that aims to ensure the health and safety of workers by guaranteeing certain rights to them with respect to their work schedule. While the policy has been largely beneficial in terms of enhancing integration of the EU’s labor markets, its opt-out provisions create undesirable opportunities for social dumping.
The Working Time Directive was passed in 2003, amending and replacing the Council Directive 93/104/EC that outlined the basic working time requirements with the aim of protecting workers’ health, hygiene, and safety. This piece of legislation relies on Article 137 of the Treaty establishing the European Community that calls for the EU to complement the legislation passed by the member states in the field of workers’ health and safety protection.
Relying on the research carried out by the European Commission and the European Economic and Social Committee, the legislators aim to provide adequate resting time to employees and address the issue of night work which is believed to be potentially more harmful to the human body (European Parliament & Council of the European Union 2003). Thus, the primary objective of the WTD is to implement EU-wide working time and schedule standards so as to protect the workers’ health and safety and further the integration of the single labor market.
Given that the market actors frequently tend to be self-interested and guided by economic rather than social considerations, the Working Time Directive is a necessary and useful measure to uphold the rights of the EU workers. The Directive imposes specific limitations on the amount and pattern of the working hours that employees are subject to. Thus, Chapter 2 of the Directive lays out the minimum rest period requirements: working hours, including overtime, are not to exceed 48 hours each week, and employees are to receive at least 11-hour long breaks in any 24-hour period. Moreover, a 24-hour consecutive rest period is to be included in every 7-day period.
Should workers be on duty for over 6 hours, they are entitled to a break during their working hours. Finally, every worker has a right to a 4-week long paid leave each year (European Parliament & Council of the European Union 2003).
Chapter 3 of the Directive outlines the extra protection measures concerning night workers: their average working hours are not to exceed 8 hours in any 24-hour period, especially if the job involves heavy or dangerous work. Employers are required to provide free health assessments to night workers, and, in some cases, have to transfer them to daytime work. Chapter 5, on the other hand, lists certain derogations and exceptions that may apply to the Directive’s main provisions. They are meant to apply to those workers whose occupation has some specific characteristics, such as executive managers and family workers.
The Directive also sets several exceptions for employees in certain sectors, such as sea fishing or city transportation. Apart from that, Article 22 of the Directive allows the national governments to opt-out from the 48-hour workweek limit, as long as individual employees agree to work longer hours (European Parliament & Council of the European Union 2003). The last provision became the issue of heated debate in the UK, as the country chose to opt-out from the limit.
The provisions included in the Directive have been designed in such a way so as to protect the workers, and they are based on extensive research. Thus, an increased workload – meaning one exceeding 48 hours a week – has been linked to stress, mental health illnesses, heart diseases, and diabetes, to name a few. Employees working longer hours are also more likely to make unhealthy lifestyle choices such as excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, and poor eating habits. Moreover, exposure to dangerous working environments, such as those with the increased levels of noise or use of chemicals, presents an issue for long-hour workers, as safe exposure limits are typically calculated given a 40-hour workweek (Trades Union Congress 2005).
Apart from addressing health and safety issues, the Directive can also help solve other problems associated with long-hour workplaces. For instance, such jobs tend to have considerably fewer female workers – only one-fifth of the total number of employees – and, therefore, they frequently limit career opportunities for women. Working patterns based on long hours are also far more likely to have a detrimental effect on parenting, as well as on the individual’s work-life balance.
Long-hour jobs also adversely affect lifelong learning, as individuals working them typically have little to no time to participate in further education and training. As their skills are not getting developed, these individuals are likely to remain in long-hour jobs for extended periods of time which reduces their overall quality of life. Opinion polls and surveys also reveal that workers, on average, prefer if their working week was limited to no more than 48 hours (Trades Union Congress 2005).
Even though the national governments largely retain control over the employment policy, there is a significant Europeanization trend in the domain of social policy. In this field, the EU adopted a governance approach, whereby it aims to coordinate and encourage cooperation among the member states instead of directly regulating the market. To a significant extent, the EU considers both social and economic dimensions of the employment policy, especially emphasizing equal pay, non-discrimination, and other issues pertaining to workers’ rights (Gold 2009).
Thus, the development of the single labor market can be compared to the conception of the single market for goods that were also initiated through more incremental measures and were gradually brought under the Union’s control. Such measures as the Working Time Directive help enhance the integration of the European single labor market.
Initially, cooperation in the fields of employment and social inclusion was based on the Open Method of Cooperation that relied on the voluntary cooperation of the national governments (Gold 2009). As such, the method is primarily based on the soft law principle whereby the European Commission has little power to enforce the national governments’ compliance with these provisions. Increasingly, however, one can observe the prevailing trend of harmonization of national laws and convergence of standards across the Union.
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The change can be noted, first of all, in the kind of legislative acts that are being passed in the employment policy domain: instead of the non-binding recommendations, the EU now primarily adopts directives. Such an approach helps harmonize the widely different working conditions standards across the EU member states, helping create more uniform laws and allowing for better worker protection. Harmonization, in turn, guarantees that the single market is not distorted by the differing employment provisions, unjustly shifting supply or demand from one country to another. At this stage, one can say that the EU has truly achieved the free movement of workers, as their migration patterns are not influenced by the somewhat arbitrary factors such as the different national employment provisions.
While in theory, the Working Time Directive has the potential to bridge the gap between the member states, the reality of its implementation, in fact, undermines the formation of a single European labor market. The implementation issues allow for a certain degree of social dumping as some member states chose to opt-out from the policy, and others fail to fully implement the Directive’s provisions (Parliament gives Working Time opt-outs the red card 2008).
The term “social dumping” refers to the phenomenon whereby some business actors attempt to take advantage of cheap labor by moving their operations to a country with lower working standards and wages or employing migrant workers. In the EU context, social dumping occurs, first of all, when companies manage to get an advantage by using the loopholes – including the derogations – in the EU employment legislation (European Trade Union Confederation 2015).
Essentially, derogations and opt-outs provide exactly what is needed for social dumping – gaps or loopholes in legislation that certain employers use to their advantage. Thus, derogations effectively distort the free labor market, just like different product labeling and packaging laws have the potential to distort the free market for goods. Apart from creating unfair competition, social dumping produces several other undesirable consequences.
Typically, given the increased competition, it causes a decrease in wages, as well as a general deterioration of working conditions. Frequently, it also leads to a loss in the country’s tax revenue, depriving the state of the contributions necessary to fund its welfare program (European Trade Union Confederation 2015). For instance, in the case of the UK’s opt-out, whereby individuals are allowed to work more than 48 hours a week, many potential workers can be attracted to come to the country to work longer hours. Such a situation creates an artificial increase in the labor supply. At the same time, not only the opt-outs are responsible for creating opportunities for social dumping: several member states are still in the breach of certain Directive’s provisions, meaning that it is not fully and accurately implemented at the national level (BusinessEurope 2011).
Companies and corporations are, above all, profit-generating entities and, as such, they are primarily driven by financial interests and considerations. While it does not necessarily mean that they are constantly looking for ways to exploit their employees, they are, nevertheless, more likely to overlook their workers’ concerns in their attempt to maximize their business opportunities. Thus, they tend to consider this issue from a different angle.
For instance, they emphasize the increased flexibility that longer working hours give to the employers, who can effectively respond to fluctuations in demand, adjust their business hours to align them with their customers’ needs, as well as complete certain projects under a strict and short deadline. Consequently, they perceive the EU intervention as an unnecessary measure that hinders economic growth and development (BusinessEurope 2011). The European Commission needs to make sure to consider and evaluate these claims so as to reconcile the workers’ rights with the Union’s economic goals.
Overall, the Working Time Directive is a valuable piece of legislation that helps uphold the workers’ rights by protecting their health and safety and positively influencing their work-life balance and overall well-being. The provisions laid out in the Directive are based on extensive research and evidence supporting its underlying assumptions. By harmonizing the national employment standards, the Working Time Directive, together with other relevant laws, help foster integration in the area of the single European labor market. However, the Directive in its present form, given the reality of its implementation, can potentially create opportunities for unfair competition and social dumping. Thus, the EU needs to carefully balance economic interests and workers’ rights so as to guarantee fairness and growth.
BusinessEurope 2011, Policy briefing: Working Time Directive. Web.
European Parliament & Council of the European Union 2003, Directive 2003/88/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 4 November 2003 concerning certain aspects of the organisation of working time. Web.
European Trade Union Confederation 2015, Free movement, yes! Social dumping, no! Web.
Gold, M 2009, Employment policy in the European Union: Origins, themes and prospects, Palgrave Macmillan, New York. Web.
Parliament gives Working Time opt-outs the red card . 2008. Web.
Trades Union Congress 2005, TUC slay working time myths. Web.